When I first set about writing retro gaming reviews, this was the sort of game I had in mind.
Like many other Playstation owners, I bought the original Resident Evil, a game that set the template for the survival-horror genre. Gruesome zombies, creepy mansions, ammo conservation and voice acting so cheesy it could feed a Subway franchise.
So when the sequel came out, deciding to buy it was, much like the zombie protagonists, a no brainer. There was just one problem; I never played it. In fact, I never played the original either. Despite buying both on release, neither saw any play time beyond a cursory stride around the opening scenes, something that became a pattern of my gaming life at that point.
Fast forward almost 20 years later and I made a concerted effort to tackle my bulging back catalogue. Last year I finally took on Resident Evil and was rewarded with a rich, engaging experience, a schlock-horror b-movie brought to life and a satisfying challenge to beat.
And so I find myself finally ready to tackle the sequel. Set a couple of months after the events of the first game, the second instalment moves the action from the creepy mansion of the first game to Raccoon City itself. As in Resi 1, you have a choice of characters to play as, although this time round it has a much more tangible impact on the experience. More on that later.
I opted to start as Claire Redfield, sister of Resi 1 hero Chris Redfield, heading to the city to track down her brother. A stowaway zombie, truck crash and impassable fire later, we’re into the thick of the action.
Early 3D games such as Resident Evil can appear somewhat clunky to modern eyes but Resi 2 demonstrates some noteable improvements over its predecessor.
Within the limitations of the control scheme, characters move around nimbly enough. Outside of cut-scenes, they are not exposed to the gurning, mismatched lip flapping that is common with poorly synced voiceover work and each of the two central characters has a distinct look and feel. The cut-scenes themselves are generally well implemented although frustratingly unskippable. No problem the first time, a frustration in the event of replaying.
Enemies meanwhile are a gruesome bunch from the regular Joe’s to shuffling police officers right up to the weird and wonderful array of special nasties out to ruin your day. Highlights include a giant mutant crocodile that comes snapping at you out of the abyss (and prompts a great Jaws-inspired moment), nasty ceiling hugging lickers and the central villain of the piece, a grotesque, pulsating abomination that lives long in the memory.
The setting itself has an immediate advantage over Resi 1 in making the game feel bigger, the use of Raccoon City opening up the world, even though in truth the action remains confined to a tightly controlled environment. The police station serves as a suitable (and logical) location for our protagonists to be holed up in but things soon take a turn for the weird as the plot develops, opening up new environments. As in the first game, opening doors or navigating steps often results in a change of scene cutaway, which actually serves to ramp up the tension as the music kicks in a heartbeat before the screen comes back.
Set pieces are grander too, the opening scene lorry crash very much setting the pace whilst the well placed jump scares and reveals help to create a truly disturbing atmosphere. This is exacerbated by the use of unique viewing angles, the camera often positioned in such a way as to capture an important item in a room or otherwise draw the players attention. More than once you will find yourself opening a door with a sense of impending doom or creeping along a blood drenched hallway, waiting for the next grim specimen to emerge. Later on, a couple of nice FMV sequences add a touch of gloss to the proceedings too, as well as forwarding the story.
Sound plays a crucial part. The usual array of creaking doors and clomping footsteps are very much present and correct. When you enter a new scene, your viewpoint will often be restricted so that you can hear, rather than see, a threat, unseen zombies shuffling across the floor towards you, their death rattle and bloody stumbles alerting you to the danger. Mood music is also utilised to good effect to underscore moments of danger, surprise or tension, especially as the action hots up towards the end as the game becomes a race against the clock, alarms and alert music thumping along. As with Resi 1, voice work remains on the Stilton end of cheese but it adds to the campy atmosphere rather than detracting from it, another ingredient in the b-movie pot.
Plus I got a chuckle out of the fact that the inventory selection noise sounds exactly like the selection noise on my children’s LeapPad.
The game comes on two discs, split across the two main characters. Finishing one disc will give you an ending but to really complete the game, you need to finish at least one scenario for each character. It means a degree of repetition as the second character scenario is ultimately treading the same boards as the first. But there are enough differences and with the change in perspective, forearmed with knowledge of the events to transpire, provides enough of a change of pace to make it feel like a worthwhile design choice, as opposed to a cheap method of extending the life of the game. Plus given that you are familiar with the environment, you are able to tear around more quickly, making the second play through almost like a speed run.
You can tackle them in any order but the canon version is considered to be Claire ‘A’ and Leon ‘B’ and so that is the route I took.
Whichever character you choose, the basic control is the same, which means a return to the tank like method of moving around the screen. It is clunky to start with, your character turning on the spot, having to be pointed in the direction you want to move rather than the full 360 degree freedom of movement we have become accustomed to. As you fumble around, it is all too easy to get muched by a groping zombie, especially as the game starts by dumping you right in the middle of a packed street, a baptism by fire and no mistake. But persevere and it soon becomes second nature, a stab of the square button letting you burst into a sprint, or you can stride around more leisurely for extra atmosphere points.
Weapons are easy to use too. Only one can be selected at a time, switchable from your inventory, where you can also manually reload, rather than risk precious seconds mid-battle as you run out of bullets. You have a couple of options for targeting, depending on your preference. The hardcore amongst you will likely prefer the manual setting whilst personally I opted for auto targeting, the game lining up a shot against the most imminent threat as soon as you press the right shoulder button.
All interactions are handled by a press of the X button, often in combination with an item from your inventory, which is always just a press of the circle button away. Aside from the zombie hunting, the bulk of the game is exploration and puzzle solving as you (deep breath) try to find the key that opens the door that lets you access the room that holds the item that you need to progress. Phew! You can also call up the map to find the optimum route, although I usually prefer just walking round until I find my way, the locations small enough to be reasonably easily memorised.
All the fetching and carrying can be a little monotonous after a while but items are fairly sensibly placed to avoid too much backtracking whilst puzzles are far from taxing, the solution usually sign posted. That said, some of the puzzles will cause you to question just what type of police station they run in Raccoon City with its myriad hidden items, event-triggering moveable statues and the like.
To mix things up, you get to control additional characters. Whilst the basics are the same, it adds a different vibe as Claire’s story suddenly switches to a little girl whilst Leon encounters a mystery woman. It’s a neat twist that provides a welcome distraction from the main fare.
It’s a fairly linear experience. Items must be collected in a specific order to progress whilst the game will prevent you from using an item at the wrong time or the wrong place. Some may find it restrictive but I appreciated the more narrow focus, the game becoming a set of goals to be achieved, the comfort of knowing a specific item cannot be wasted in the wrong place giving you freedom for trial and error.
All things considered this is a far shootier affair than the first game. Which makes sense, given that it is set in a police station where weapons and ammunition would surely be plentiful. You still need to be careful and not waste bullets unnecessarily but by and large you can blast your way out of trouble most times, only occasionally forced to resort to sprinting rather than shooting your way through.
And it’s a good job too because there are all sorts of nasty specimens out to get you. Rank and file are the zombies, police officers or citizens that wander around the place. They are slow moving and you can often sprint past but stray too close and they might just give you a chomp.
The aforementioned Lickers are a lively bunch, crawling along the floor or ceiling, flicking out a rapier like tongue that slashes through you, causing considerable damage. On top of that, there are the ‘boss’ characters, from the dirty great crocodile to the fiend who stalks Leon round his whole scenario like a lost, violent puppy.
Thankfully you come well equipped. Your bog standard pistol is all but useless against anything but birds and zombies, even then taking at least half a dozen shots to fell the floorboard shufflers. More satisfying blasting can be found with the grenade launcher (Claire) or shotgun (Leon). The former offers a variety of different bullet types to suit all your sadistic needs whilst the latter tears through the wandering horde, often leaving a pair of legs wandering aimlessly, the torso left to crawl helplessly across the floor.
Add in the magnum gun, an effective one shot kill, plus additional special weapons that I won’t spoil and it tallies up to a formidable arsenal. There remain moments when you are down to your last round or simply outnumbered, at which point discretion is very much the better part of valour. But generally, so long as you take the time to explore and locate items, you are sufficiently stocked to see off the array of nasties.
Health is again managed by use of herbs, the green, red and blue varieties, used in combination, offering different benefits. Failing that, grab a first aid spray can where you can to leave you smelling all minty fresh and healthy.
Across the 6-8 hours of playing time, this is a cracking game and a definite improvement over the original. The plot is a suitable blend of hackneyed, b-movie tropes with large dollops of shocks, scares, guts and guns. There is genuine tension as you creep round a corner, down to your last couple of bullets, hoping against hope that the way is clear. There are also moments of terrific action, from emerging into a room full of zombies like Han Solo on the Death Star to the gargantuan boss battles that take every ounce of fire-power. And it’s well balanced, offering a challenge without ever feeling overwhelming.
But we cannot leave this review without talking about the horrendous save system. Yes, we’re back to the crusty old typewriter / ink ribbon system used in Resi 1, a variation on the tried and trusted system of a collectible saved point, used in both Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider amongst others. Appreciating that the systems of the time had limitations that modern machines don’t face, it nonetheless gives you an appreciation for auto-save. It can be incredibly frustrating to complete a large section of the game, only to run out of inventory slots so that you can’t carry an ink ribbon, or to come a cropper before you can reach a save point, resulting in you having to replay a big chunk of the game. Stylistically it is annoying and aesthetically it is mismatched too. In the mansion setting of Resi 1, the old typewriters were quirky. In a police station, they seem completely out of place.
The inventory system itself can be a pain too. It is all very well introducing some realism that prevents a single character from carrying too much kit but to then allow you to store it in a fantastical set of apparently interconnected, bottomless, Harry Potter-esque magic trunks is incongruous with this sense of realism. It is messy, a solution attempting to solve a problem of the designers creation.
Tense, gruesome, shocking and surprisingly action packed. This is an absolute classic of the survival horror genre.